Contemporary Reflections on Ancient Forms

Contemporary Reflections on Ancient Forms
Contemporary Reflections on Ancient Forms

An image of a Thai massage practitioner working with a client on the floor is used to illustrate the concept of Thai massage, which involves lots of stretching, deep compressions, and acupressure.

Thai massage is an ancient practice whose roots can be traced back to India during the Buddha’s lifetime more than 2,500 years ago; however, its popularity in modern massage in the West is relatively new.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that Thai massage became available outside of Thailand. Over the past 20+ years, Thai massage has grown from an obscure, fringe practice not included in massage school curricula to a mainstream practice that can be found all over the world.

In a demanding profession, offering the tools to prolong professional life is very attractive to massage therapists. When practiced properly, Thai massage is equally beneficial to the giver and receiver, making the modality increasingly popular and in demand.

Because Thai massage requires a meditative state of mind and the focus of a martial artist, Thai massage practitioners may end up experiencing a great sense of satisfaction and fulfillment in their careers.

Thai Massage: More Than Just Stretching

Most people think of Thai massage as assisted or passive stretching. Often referred to as “lazy yoga” or “Thai yoga massage,” it’s no wonder Thai massage has this reputation. Just google “Thai massage” and you’ll find page after page of the same moves. Although these dynamic stretches create aesthetically pleasing images that look great on a website or brochure, Thai massage is much more than these flashy techniques.

Traditional Thai massage involves deep compressions and acupressure, which are just as important, if not more important, than passive stretching. As massage therapists, we know that before engaging clients in deep passive stretches, it is critical to first warm up their muscles and tissues to avoid injury and defensive reactions. These compressions and acupressure are very effective ways to reduce fascial restrictions, relieve muscle tension and activate the body’s relaxation response. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a Thai massage to exclude passive stretching altogether, especially if the underlying constitution of the client makes deep stretching and passive movement contraindicated for them.

The intelligent and technical sequences of Thai massage allow the body to relax easily and efficiently. Thai massage usually begins with the feet, with the client lying on their back. We start with pressure and acupressure on the feet and legs, then acupressure along the sen line. Once we’ve warmed up the muscles and fascia, we can begin passive stretching. We continue this technical sequence as we progress towards the head.

After 20 years of training, practicing and teaching, I define Thai massage as an ancient and powerful healing method that combines deep compression, acupressure and passive yogic stretching to restore balance to the mind and body.

east meets west

A Thai massage is so different from a typical table massage that I often feel that the word massage is not enough to describe the experience. I tell my clients that getting a Thai massage is like going to a chiropractor, acupuncturist, massage therapist, and yoga class all at the same time! It’s a unique and comprehensive bodywork experience.

Traditionally, there are esoteric explanations for practicing Thai massage in a certain way, influenced by the cultural and spiritual aspects of Thai culture. Each class begins with a ceremony called a wai khru, a short mantra that honors the lineage of Thai massage teachers. The custom of performing wai khru can be seen in many other parts of Thai life, including before martial arts competitions and at the beginning of elementary school each year.

The sequence of Thai massage techniques also has esoteric meanings: it is said that the body is like a lotus flower, the lower body is the stem and trunk, and the upper body is the flower, through this work we can remove the dirt from the stem and allow the flower to bloom. In other words, through acupressure along the energy channels of the body, we remove blockages so that life force can flow unimpeded.

As Thai massage has entered the modern mainstream, we have also been able to appreciate the physiological aspects and benefits of this modality from a Western perspective. Intensively studied and practiced over time, it is clear that Thai massage is an ancient form of what we now know as myofascial release. As the therapist applies slow, deep compressions to the hands, feet, knees, and elbows, muscles and fascia soften, localized circulation increases, and trigger points are deactivated.

The body’s sen line, or energy line, coincides with the myofascial meridian

Next, the therapist performs acupressure along the body’s energy lines, which we now know coincide with myofascial meridians. From a modern, western and physiological perspective, the working sen lines – or what I like to call the seams of the body – loosen stuck fascia and allow for greater mobility and less tension.

Finally, after the compression and shiatsu massage, the therapist may perform the passive yogic stretches that Thai massage is known for. The benefits of passive stretching increase exponentially as the client’s body warms and relaxes.

Ancient Modalities, Modern Understanding

Every Asian healing tradition has energy line methods to heal the body. This is because ancient Asian healing modalities, still practiced today, predate modern anatomy and physiology, which did not emerge until the time of Hippocrates and Galen in Greece.

Amazingly, modern science and physiology have confirmed this ancient understanding of the energy movement of the body, as we now know that energy lines are actually myofascial meridians. The basic premise of healing through working energy lines is that the body consists of invisible channels through which life force flows. When these channels become blocked, energy cannot flow properly and discomfort, pressure and pain can occur. When channels are unblocked, life force can flow freely through the body and enhance optimal health.

The life force and energy lines in the body have many different names, depending on the country and culture. For example, Chinese medicine uses a system of meridians called life force or qi. Ayurveda calls the energy lines nadis and prana. In Thai massage and Thai traditional medicine, we use the sen thread and refer to the life force as lom, which translates to wind.

The goal of every Asian therapy is to maintain and restore the normal flow of life force energy in the body, creating an optimal environment for healing and homeostasis to occur.

Benefits of Thai Massage for Clients

I believe the growing popularity and demand of Thai massage is due to a consistent result of customer experience. When I started practicing Thai massage over 20 years ago, one of the first things I noticed was that I was able to relieve stress in my clients faster and for a longer period of time than with other types of massage I had previously practiced.

While Thai massage contains some of the same benefits as table massage, it has unique qualities that make it stand out, such as emphasizing body parts that are often excluded or receive little attention in table massage. This is partly because during a Thai massage, clients are well-groomed.

In this work, we spend a lot of time working the adductors, hamstrings, abs, and front torso. Although limitations and trigger points in these areas are the cause of many clients’ major complaints, therapists typically spend little time with these areas. When we focus on these undertreated areas, clients experience fast and long-lasting relief.

Also, when we do engage in passive stretching, it really pulls clients out of their habitual patterns. When we combine acupressure and compression with passive stretching, clients enjoy greater flexibility and better posture.

Benefits of Thai Massage for Therapists

As I mentioned before, massage is laborious. The top three reasons massage therapists leave the field are physical burnout, injury, or an inability to pursue the profession financially sustainably full-time. Thai massage addresses all of these issues, giving therapists the tools necessary to maintain long-term development and thrive in their chosen profession.

Because of its ergonomic body mechanics, reminiscent of martial arts, and the use of gravity and leverage rather than muscles, it avoids the repetitive stress injuries and physical burnout common among massage therapists, and therapists tend to get stronger, more suitable for the process.

Thai massage is also performed in a meditative, relaxing manner. I learned early on from a teacher that Thai massage is a two-way therapeutic exchange: there can be no tension in your body or mind while performing this massage; otherwise, the therapeutic exchange is cut short.

I can’t think of another career that offers this kind of mutually beneficial relationship. More than 2,500 years later, Thai massage seems to hold the key to professional longevity and fulfillment, as well as the key to personal growth and groundedness.

As we practice the sabai way with gratitude and lightheartedness, we are invited to experience the joy and satisfaction of sharing this work with our communities, supporting the health and vitality of all we come into contact with.


about the author

Jill Burynski has been a massage therapist since 1998. She teaches Thai massage and was inducted into the World Massage Hall of Fame in 2018. Jill has traveled to Thailand eight times since 2003 and studied at ITM Geriatric Medicine Hospital and Pichest Boonthume in Chiang Mai, Thailand. She founded Living Sabai, a Thai massage school.

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